The Mapmaker's Opera By Bea Gonzalez
Author Bea Gonzalez has taken her love of opera and used its form as the arrangement for her novel The Mapmaker's Opera. Set in the cities of Seville, in Spain, and Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, this is a love story in three acts, beginning with an overture and ending with a curtain call. Our hero, the tenor, is Diego Clemente, born in Seville to a woman who became pregnant in an affair with a nobleman.
She was rescued by marriage to a very nice man, the local bookseller, who loved her son, Diego, as his own..
Days in the bookshop
The young Diego spends his days in his father's bookshop, reading; fascinated with the maps, and the illustrations in the octavo edition of Audubon's Birds of America.
After a turbulent and emotionally draining adolescence Diego, an orphan at the age of 25, is on his way to the Yucatan Peninsula to become the assistant to the naturalist Edward Nelson. Here he will research and study the birds, and make a future for himself in the New World.
Our heroine, the soprano, is Sofia Duarte, a 22-year-old young woman living in Merida, in the Yucatan, when Diego arrives there. Sofia's father is a henequen farmer and a book seller. We find Sofia “inside the bookstore, dressed in a fetching pale pink dress, seated at an ebony escritoire, gazing at a favourite book. All around her, in shelves that rise upwards of twelve feet, are the leather-bound books that arrive monthly from London, Paris, New York and Madrid.'”
Sofia has resisted the match-making efforts of her mother, grandmother and aunt and wishes to make her own decision about her future.
“Like her father and his father before him, Sofia is in love with the feel of the paper, in love with the possibilities waiting inside the pages of obscure volumes where she learns the secrets of the apothecaries, the size and look of the heavens; where she can roam the streets of Victorian England or the plains of sixteenth-century Spain.”
You can imagine Diego's surprise and delight when he first enters the book shop and discovers Sofia pouring over Audubon's Birds of America.
We now have our two lovers.
Their future is unfolding on the eve of the Mexican Revolution. The city of Merida was a very cosmopolitan city, in the grand Spanish style, with the beautiful Plaza Mayor, where the townspeople stroll, mansions along its tree -lined boulevards and in the countryside the henequen plantations.
Anyone who has traveled in the Yucatan will have discovered these plantations. All had fallen into disrepair when I traveled in the Yucatan over a decade ago, but some are now restored as luxury accommodation for travelers seeing the Mayan archeological sites in the Yucatan. In the early 1900s, the henequen plantations, using former slaves from the earlier sugar cane plantations as labour, were producing rope, made from the sisal cactus.
This rope was a very valuable product in the days before plastic, and some of the farmers were very wealthy indeed.
The hacienda of one wealthy henequen baron is described as “rooms full of Italian furniture, beautiful oriental rugs, fine oil paintings and marble statues of every size.”
The factory had the latest German made steam-powered machines and railway tracks took the sisal directly from the factory to the port of Progreso -now a holiday destination. It is hard to imagine the wealth in this area at this time. Here Diego and Sofia are falling in love - much to the distress of Sofia's family.
As Diego and Sofia research and draw the birds they both so love, the conflicts of her family and of the nation reach a crescendo that all are drawn into as the novel concludes.
This delightful novel/opera is overall a story written to pay tribute to the impact that music and stories have on our lives, and Bea Gonzalez has combined these elements superbly. As we are told,when the curtain falls on this opera, “After all, what else of ourselves do we leave behind?
“Just a story, scattered scenes from an often complicated life, a tidbit of an arduous journey, and song that surges, thrills and fades into memory after the last song is sung”.